Illuminating Comments by Swift Himself on This Book
Some of the most illuminating comments on Gulliver’s Travels have come from Swift himself. In a letter that he wrote to Alexander Pope with regard to this book, he makes several points. Firstly, he says that the chief end of all his labours is “to vex the world rather than divert it”. Secondly, he declares that he has “ever hated all nations, professions and communities and all his love is toward individuals”.Explaining this remark, he says that he hates the tribe of lawyers, physicians, etc., but that he loves particular lawyers and physicians. He goes on to say in this connection that principally he hates and detests that animal called man, although he heartily loves John, Peter, and Thomas. Thirdly, Swift asserts that he does not believe in the definition of man as animal rationale and that in his view man is only ration is capax. In other words, Swift does not believe that man is a rational animal, though he does believe that man is capable of becoming rational if he makes the necessary effort. Having thus expressed his views, Swift adds that upon this great foundation of misanthropy (though not Timon’s manner), the whole building of Gulliver’s Travels has been erected.
In another letter to Alexander Pope, Swift writes: “Drown the world; I am not content with despising it, but I would anger it if I could with safety. I tell you after all that I do not hate mankind; it is you others who hate them because you would have them reasonable animals and are angry or disappointed because they are not reasonable.” This means that he does not look upon men as reasonable beings, and that he does not hate mankind, though he would like to annoy or vex mankind by his condemnation of its unreasonableness.
Swift’s Purpose in Writing “Gulliver’s Travels”: the Nature of His Misanthropy
The gist of these statements by Swift is that he is not a complete misanthrope, that he hates mankind collectively but loves particular individuals in all categories and classes of people, that he does not think human beings to be rational though he does think them to be capable of becoming rational, and that his main object in writing Gulliver’s Travels (and other books) was to shake people out of their complacency and to make them aware of their own faults and shortcomings. To establish that human beings are not rational thus emerges as one of the leading motives behind Swift’s writing of Gulliver’s Travels. Nor is there any doubt that Swift fully succeeds in exposing the irrationality and other follies and absurdities of human beings in general. Connected with this chief aim, was Swift’s desire to expose the shortcomings, follies, and injustices perpetrated by particular individuals such as Robert Walpole, Queen Anne, and others.
Swift’s Dislike of Political and Religious Strife as Expressed in Part I
In accordance with this design, we find Swift exposing, through Gulliver, the stupidity of religious conflicts such as those which existed between the Roman Catholics and the Protestants (and which exist even today). The BigEndians and the Little-Endians in Lilliput represent the two major divisions of Christianity. Rope-dancing here represents Sir Robert Walpole’s skill at parliamentary strategy and political intrigue. Creeping under a string is a satirical allusion to the sycophancy of the political favourites of the King. The coloured ribbons which were the prizes awarded to the winners represent the ribbons of the orders of the Garter, the Thistle, and the
. These awards serve the same purpose in the case of candidates for political patronage as carrots serve when they are shown to donkeys. The conflict between High-Heels and Low-Heels represents the conflict between the two political parties, and Swift’s disapproval of it. The annoyance of the Empress of Lilliput with Gulliver for extinguishing a fire in her palace is a satirical allusion to Queen Anne’s annoyance with Swift for having written A Tale of a Tub. All this is part of the political allegory which we find in Part I of Gulliver’s Travels. It is true that in some cases Swift is here prompted by his personal ill-will against certain individuals, but there is also unselfish satire when, for instance, he describes the civil war waging between those who insist that an egg should be broken at the big end and those who insist that an egg should be broken at the small end. Bath
Swift’s Ridicule of the Absurd Customs of the Lilliputians
Then, there is satire of a general kind in Part I. For instance, the Lilliputians bury their dead with their heads directly downwards because they hold an opinion that, in eleven thousand moons, the dead will rise again. The people of Lilliput do not recognize that a child has any obligation to his parents for bringing him into the world because, considering the miseries of human life, it is of no benefit to the child that he has been begotten. Thus Swift is here ridiculing the irrational customs and beliefs of the Lilliputians who after all represent human beings reduced to a small scale.
The Follies of Human Beings as Exposed in Part II
In Part II, Swift satirizes the ugliness, the coarseness, and the foulness of the human body by making us look at human beings through a magnifying glass. Not only is the description of the beggars disgusting but even the maids of honour at the
Royal Court produce a disgusting effect upon Gulliver, because a very offensive smell comes from their skins. A general criticism of Gulliver’s countrymen is made by the King of Brobdingnag when he says that the history of Gulliver’s country is only a heap of conspiracies, rebellions, murders, and banishments resulting from avarice, hypocrisy, cruelty, hatred, and ambition. The King also declares that to him Gulliver’s countrymen seem to be the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth. The King does not think that the government of a country needs endless discussion and dispute. What the government needs most is common sense, reason, and a sense of fairness. According to the King, whoever can make two ears of com or two blades of grass grow upon a piece of ground where only one grew before, would be doing more essential service to his country than the whole race of politicians put together. Thus the criticism made by the King has a constructive aspect.
A Condemnation of the Laputans
The description of the people of Laputa also reveals the irrationality of these people. The heads of these people are all inclined either to the right or to the left; one of their eyes is turned inward and the other directly up to the zenith. These people are completely engrossed in their own meditations and cogitations. Their interests are limited only to the sciences of music and geometry. They have no peace of mind because all the time they are worried about the disaster that will one day overtake this planet. Gulliver tells us that he had never seen a more clumsy, awkward, and unhandy people, nor so slow and perplexed upon all other subjects (except geometry and music).
A Condemnation of Unrealistic Intellectuals, of Historians, and of Literary Critics
At the Academy of Projectors in Lagado (the capital of Barnibarbi), scientists are busy with silly schemes such as obtaining sunbeams from cucumbers, reducing human excrement to its original food, building houses from the roof downwards to the foundation, and getting silk from cobwebs. These projects expose the irrationality of the intellectuals in undertaking researches which can yield no practical results. The account of the Academy, then, is a satire on projectors, academics, planners, intellectuals, in fact all people who proceed according to theory and are useless when it comes to actual practice. Swift is here largely thinking of the useless work that was being done in his opinion by the Royal Society at that time. In any case, Swift did not subscribe to the worship of science, and the veneration accorded in his time to
. Here, of course, Swift is somewhat shortsighted because he did not realize the potentialities of scientific research, however fantastic or unpractical it may appear to be in the beginning. Newton
Condemnation of the Longing for Immortality
Another proof of the irrationality of man is his desire for immortality. After witnessing the miserable plight of the immortals (the Struldbrugs) in Luggnagg, Gulliver feels perfectly disillusioned and his keen appetite for perpetuity of a life is much abated. Swift also offers in this part of his book a sharp satire on those historians who twist the facts of history or manufacture the facts, and those literary critics who have misinterpreted in different ways the writings of ancient authors like Homer and Aristotle.
Exposure of Human Irrationality in Part IV
In Part IV, Swift’s exposure of human unreason becomes extremely cruel. The satire in this part takes the form of denunciation and invective. Human beings are here degraded by being represented as Yahoos who are described as unteachable brutes, cunning, gluttonous, and disposed to great mischief. By comparison with them, the horses are noble animals who are governed wholly by reason, and whose chief virtues are benevolence and kindness. The Houyhnhnms are free from lust and greed. They know how to regulate their population, and they do not have any fear of death. Their whole administration is based on the principle of co-operation rather than competition. Apart from this, the contrast between the Yahoos and the Houyhnhnms makes us develop an aversion to the Yahoos. Gulliver himself indulges in a large-scale and sweeping condemnation of his countrymen or the human race. There is no doubt that Swift himself is speaking through Gulliver when Gulliver launches an attack upon lawyers, judges, physicians, and ministers of state; and this fierce attack fully proves Swift’s assertion that he hated nations, communities, and professions. Gulliver also here informs his equine* master that the rich in his country live upon the labour of the poor. This economic exploitation is another proof of the irrationality of man. Gulliver’s analysis of the causes of war between nations and his description of the destruction caused by war also show human irrationality. Sometimes a war is started because the enemy is too strong and sometimes because the enemy is too weak. Sometimes our neighbours want the things which we have, or have the things which we want; poor nations are hungry, and rich nations are proud. The ravages of war are terrible: ships sunk with a thousand men, twenty thousand killed on each side; dying groans; limbs flying in the air; smoke, noise, confusion; flight, pursuit, victory; fields covered with dead bodies left as food for dogs, wolves, and birds of prey. Rightly does Gulliver’s equine master say that, instead of reason, human beings are possessed of some quality fitted to increase their natural vices.
Swift, Not an Absolute Misanthrope
In view of this detailed exposure of human irrationality, folly, and propensity to vice, it would seem that Swift is a cynic and a misanthrope. There is no doubt at all that his opinion of mankind is very low. That does not, however, necessarily mean that he hates the human race. When Gulliver refuses to return to his own country or even to join his family, he is not to be identified with Swift. Indeed, in the concluding two or three chapters Swift completely parts company with Gulliver. It is Gulliver who becomes a hater of the human race, and even of the members of his own family. Swift does not share this extreme misanthropy. In fact, we may even say that Swift is here mocking at the development that has taken place in Gulliver. Nor should we forget that Swift had a number of friends to whom he was genuinely attached. Among the women there was at least one, namely Stella, for whom he had a profound affection. He was therefore justified in saying in his letter to Pope that, though he hated communities and professions, he loved particular individuals.